Date of Award
Master of Arts in American Studies (MAST)
Internationally, venereal disease first became a major health concern during World War I. Venereal diseases were some of the most common infections and led to more hospitalizations among soldiers than wounds or battle-related illness. The Selective Service discovered that almost fifteen percent of those who were eligible for the draft were already infected with a venereal disease, sparking an intense anti-venereal disease campaign across America. Red-light districts were shut down, and American cities sought new laws that would criminalize prostitution to protect young men from contracting a venereal infection.
Though venereal disease rates were still high during World War II, they were drastically lower than those of World War I, and the lowest of any war period since the Civil War. However, the overwhelming presence of venereal diseases during the Great War had made a lasting impression on the American public and the U.S. War Department. Educational initiatives and protective measures were created to reduce the exposure servicemen had to venereal diseases and to help protect servicemen from contracting the infections. Among these educational measures was the creation of posters to "remind" soldiers of the threat and repercussions of contracting a venereal disease.
In the United States, World War II-era venereal disease posters depicting women were created for an overwhelmingly male, military audience. These posters warned men in the Armed Forces away from civilian women, depicting women as the primary carriers and spreaders of venereal diseases. These sentiments were mirrored in the civilian populations as young civilian women were criminalized for engaging in sexual activities.
However, World War II also saw the creation of women’s military corps. For the first time, women were able to serve their country, though not in a combat capacity, without serving as a nurse or laundress. In the Women's Army Corps, the female military corps upon which this paper will focus, women were enlisted and commissioned as soldiers and officers in much the same way that the Army enlisted and commissioned men. Women serving in the Armed Forces, however, were absent from venereal disease poster artwork during the World War II era. Their absence from such a basic form of health education provided by the military suggests that women’s reproductive health was not of the same importance as men’s during this period.
To place venereal disease in the context of American society and culture during World War II, it is important to look at the history of the disease and how it manifested into a disease socially constructed around women. The history of the poster, itself, illustrates how poster images easily reiterated the sentiments of the social constructions around the disease. Furthermore, placing the creation of the Women's Army Corps in context of the social climate surrounding venereal disease during World War II highlights the absence of women in the Armed Forces from venereal disease posters.
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